When I was little the only illustrated Bible available was a reprint of a 1950’s NIV New Testament, which has illustrations that were somehow both overwrought and evocative of comics with their pixelated, technicolor vibrancy. I’ll tell you honestly, I hated reading it.
Thankfully there are many better options available today — both adaptations of the Bible as a whole and single volume picture books dedicated to certain tales and heros in the Biblical account. Today, in anticipation of Easter, here are some of my favorite illustrators and their Biblical books.
The blurb on the inside flap of all of all of Brian Wildsmith’s books sums up his own philosophy of illustration (and a good philosophy when approaching Children’s Books in general): “Picture books are vitally important in developing a child’s appreciation of beauty.” Wildsmith was an art teacher and illustrator before he turned full time to creating picture books. In the 90s, he turned his attention to Biblical and religious subjects. Wildsmith makes these stories immediate and accessible, even using some childish drawing techniques to allow the images to enter more fully into the child’s mind. For example: the fish in the parting of the red sea, are drawn the way a five year old would draw them: with no detail and without dimension, in all sorts of fantastic shapes and colors.)
His Old Testament subject matter (Exodus and Joseph) was probably picked as an excuse to draw lots of Egyptian palaces and monuments, for the iconographic ornamentation of Ancient Egypt is perfectly suited to his pen, ink, and paint. He loves lots of little details, bold colors, and geometry. And his New Testament books do not shy away from the hard moments of the Gospel, like Christ throwing money-changers out of the temple, and being tempted in the desert or (of course) his death on the Cross. He does not use actual biblical texts, though the textual adaptation is good.
TOMIE DE PAOLA
Tomie DePaola’s Book of Bible Stories was published in 1990, when my little sister was 2, and some kind soul bought it for our family, and my enduring and eternal love for Tomie de Paola grew and grew till today (when I obsessively look for his out-of-print books, and buy every single copy of his work I can find). He has also created two books on the public ministry of Jesus, The Miracles of Jesus and The Parables of Jesus. All of these have his characteristic folk style illustrations: cheerful, simple, and lovely. His genuine respect for and love of the stories of the Bible show through his loving illustrations, and render these stories accessible for kids of all ages. His adaptation of the story of Queen Esther is a favorite too (and, come on, Esther is a favorite!). Like Matisse, dePaola has turned to cutouts in his old age, and Let the Whole Earth Sing Praise, published last year, is a beautiful adaptation of the Canticle of Daniel. I think it is wonderful: one of the most loved (and prayed) hymns of praise beautifully realized in visual form.
The very best illustrated bible I’ve seen, however, is Stories from the Bible by Lisbeth Zwerger. I’d buy the book alone for her image of the Annunciation. Remarkably, she shies away from the common subjects for her illustrations. The “adoration of the Magi” is filled with gentle trepidation: Mary in an empty room, holding Christ close, not sure what to make of these strange men approaching her on bended knee with marvelous gifts (above). Her watercolors are spare, the dress of the characters is also simple, their carriage and gestures tell most of the story, and she only allows the most telling details. Though distinctly modern in style, Zwerger is speaking in the language of traditional iconography. It is her perspective that is different, fresh, new! She also has a beautiful adaptation of Noah’s Ark, but I have not found a copy of it yet, so I cannot speak to the text. The illustrations are stunning.
Spier (best known for Rain) creates richly detailed and populated landscapes that children can get lost in for hours and hours and hours on end. So, naturally, the stories of Noah and Jonah are perfect subjects for his delightful style. I particularly love The Book of Jonah, which is one of my favorite Old Testament stories anyway. He gives us the whole story: the storm on the ship, the time in the whale, the conversion of Ninevah, the moping under the vine. Oh, poor, silly Jonah, how much we can learn from you. (Jonah is out of print. Be careful buying a used edition; a 2000 reprint of this book switches out the actual biblical text for a new adaptation that is not very good.) Noah’s Ark is still available in paperback; he won the Caldecott medal for it in 1982.